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San Francisco Bay Area Falafel

ViVi’s Restaurant and House of Falafel (Cupertino)

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ViVi’s Restaurant and House of Falafel (Cupertino)

Melanie Wong | Oct 11, 2004 04:20 PM

Recently I stopped in Cupertino to try the famous falafel and fries at ViVi’s. Despite prices low enough not to feel ripped off - $3.75 for a regular falafel sandwich in pita and $1.50 for a basket of fries – I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d missed the memo announcing ViVi’s downhill slide. Maybe this was a one-off?

Strongly spiced and deeply green in color, the discs of falafel were not crunchy at all and were soft and mushy inside. They’re generous with the tahini, but the “spicy” isn’t very. The highly lauded French fries were tough and pasty. Oh, well, now I don’t have to wonder about this place any more.

* * * * * * * * *

Three weeks ago I spotted the “Grand Opening” banner outside a brightly lit corner of a strip mall and pulled over to check it out. House of Falafel had started serving six days earlier and the interior signage from the previous tenant was still up.

The line to order didn’t seem to be moving very fast and a number of people were milling around ahead of me, due to lack of a system for taking names or giving out order numbers. But it was a happy crowd of folks eager to try it for the first time, many referred by friends, and some returnees already in this first week of operation. I enjoyed being a fly on the wall listening to the variety of comments and questions from immigrants from falafel-loving countries: Turks, Moroccans, Israelis, Lebanese, Yemenis, Greeks, Palestinians, each trying to find a taste of home. Despite the observed inefficiencies, the spinning cones of chicken and lamb shawerma had already hypnotized me and I decided stay just because the place smelled so good.

The cooking partner in this venture is Jordanian. He meticulously formed each piece of falafel in a handheld mold, using a putty knife-like spreader to shape the near conical half-dome top, then ejected it into the hot oil. With so much turnover, they were always hot and fresh. Whenever he got a little ahead of orders and falafel orbs started to accumulate, he would offer the hot samples to those waiting to order. He was rewarded with heartfelt praise for his recipe and artisanal efforts.

The menu offers inexpensive sandwiches/wraps (starting at $3.99) and plates, half vegetarian and half with meat (e.g., shish kebab, kefta kebab), plus a couple combos and some desserts. Waiting to order, I got to check out the assembly process and the tubs of fresh-looking salads and condiments. Lavosh is the default form of carbohydrate for the falafel, used to make wraps that are then heated on the grill. Sandpaper-y pita bread is also available. Wanting to sample as much as possible, I ordered the veggie combo plate, $7.99, but had to have some of the shawerma and talked ‘em into adding a few slices of the lamb for $1.99.

The falafel were stupendous in texture and complex in flavor, even munching them unadorned without sauces or the salads. The well-browned irregular exterior was crusty and crunchy, and inside the coarse ground texture wasn’t over-homogenized or pulverized into paste. The shape of the falafel offered up greater surface to volume ration than discs or balls for more satisfying crunch. They still tasted like chickpeas with nuanced spices in the background, and just a little onion and parsley. The hot sauce, provided in a little plastic cup clashed and tasted like garlicky sambal to me, so I did without. The thinly sliced red onions on the side were plain and not seasoned as described on the menu, and I didn’t get any pickles either.

I loved the pair of dolmas – made with plump round-grained pearly rice that had a soft and almost chewy texture. They were so fresh-tasting and scented with mint. Hummus was terrific too, with a strong chickpea flavor supported by garlic, lemon and tahini, and coarse, not over-liquified texture. The jajeek salad of rich yogurt and cucumbers with fresh herbs was a cool and refreshing accent.

The smoky baba ghannouj had some shreds and pieces of roasted eggplant, offering up more interesting texture, but it had just a little too much tahini dominating the flavor. Still better than most of what’s out there though. The tabbouleh was almost all chopped parsley, I would have liked more cracked wheat. Dressed with a squirt of tomato-y tahini sauce, the slices of lamb shawerma were mildly seasoned with nice crusty edges.

So far so good, I decided to try dessert too. I must have looked extremely disappointed about the rice pudding and the Turkish delight being sold out, as the cashier turned to his partner and asked if he had time to make kanafeh. He said that he could if I’d wait 10 minutes. It was well worth it to have this made up fresh, as I’d only tried reheated versions to date and this was much better. A slab of sweetened Arabic cheese with a stringy and tender texture similar to fresh mozzarella or oaxacan cheese was sandwiched between layers of lacy birds nest filo dough, then pan fried to toast the outside and melt the cheese until oozing. Some rose syrup and a sprinkle of pistachio nuts complete the picture. I was sorry I didn’t have someone to share it with because I could only eat half of it.

This was only one visit soon after opening, but I think the place will be a success if they can keep it up and work out the kinks in the ordering tracking. In fact, I’m kind of afraid that they’ll start to cut corners as volume picks up and not make the falafel by hand or cook to order. So, best to get in there now while they’re still eager to please and looking for feedback.

House of Falafel
“Mediterranean Cuisine”
19590 Stevens Creek Blvd.
(behind Valco Fashion Mall)
Cupertino
408-446-2411

Link: http://www.metroactive.com/papers/met...

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